The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
[This week we continue the story of the building of the Fergus High School.]
In November 1926, the Fergus school board decided to proceed with a Fergus-only school on the partially-purchased tennis court site.
It asked Fergus council for $75,000. When council refused, the board voted to place the debenture issue on the ballot. Fergus voters did not get a chance to vote on the joint school.
On the urging of W.G. Beatty, the board formed a publicity committee to work in favour of the debenture. Advertising included a large newspaper endorsement, bearing the names of most of the influential people in Fergus.
The voting, on Jan. 3, 1927, showed a complete reversal of opinion from a year earlier, when a $100,000 debenture issue lost by a four to one margin. This time the vote was 226-103 in favour. During the course of a couple of months, vocal opposition to a new school had largely vanished. Voters approved a debenture for a new school, and elected trustees favouring immediate construction, but peace did not last long.
The 1926 board met for the final time on Jan. 10, 1927. The architectural firm of Coon & Son showed the board plans of a new high school in Clinton, which the board viewed as an ideal example for Fergus to copy. The special committee on the school site gave its report, recommending a location at the southeast corner of St. Andrew St. and the Beatty Line, on the western fringe of Fergus.
Shortly before the election, Beatty Bros., which owned the land, offered to donate three acres. Several board members objected. Trustee Bill Rutherford moved that a plebiscite be held on the site, but the motion was defeated.
After more arguing, J.B. Ketchen and George Maude moved that the Beatty site be accepted. This motion passed, but Ketchen and Maude soon found themselves accused of self-interest. Both owned land near the site.
Trouble began the day after the meeting. A petition against the Beatty site circulated, and opinions quickly divided.
At the first meeting of the new 1927 board on Feb. 2, a very agitated Dr. Abraham Groves argued in favour of the McTavish site at Tower and Belsyde. The board stuck to its guns, and confirmed Coon & Co. as architects for the Beatty site.
The board’s next meeting, on Feb. 25, turned into a circus. Over 200 people crowded into and outside the meeting. The Chairman barely managed to keep order. Dr. Groves was in full form, nearly coming to blows with Harvey Ham. Again, the board affirmed its decision of the Beatty site, by an 8-5 recorded vote.
Dr. Groves, it appears, went home to study his municipal law books. With glee in his eye, he stumbled upon some loopholes. Newly-elected trustees were required to take an oath of office within 20 days of the election. That had not happened. Trustee George Maude had missed three consecutive meetings in 1926, which automatically removed him from the board. And trustee Michael Bergin was also a member of the Separate School Board. According to law, no one could sit on two boards. If valid, the charges meant that eight of the 13 board members were disqualified.
The board met in emergency session on March 1 to consider the dilemma. It did nothing, but news of the crisis hit all four Toronto dailies the next day.
Fergus council argued the matter at length on March 17. Council eventually decided to call a nomination meeting for April 4, and new elections for April 11 for the six seats on the board controlled by Fergus.
The nomination meeting lasted four hours. By the end of the loud and contentious evening, nine people were nominated, and six pledged to vote for the McTavish site. When the returning officer tallied the election ballots a week later, all six pro-McTavish trustees were elected.
In late April, the board began evaluating sites again, this time coming up with a list of five, with the Beatty site conspicuously absent. All were blatantly inferior to the McTavish property, either in size, cost or servicing problems.
On April 28, the board hired engineer C.D. Bowman of West Montrose to do a survey and site evaluation. J.C. Templin offered new information on the seven-acre McTavish site. Half the land was free, but would only be offered if the board purchased the other half for $500.
Bowman reported to the board on May 5. As expected, the McTavish site ranked as the best. On a motion by trustee James Russell, the board selected the McTavish site by a vote of 8-4. That was the first of a series of a half dozen acrimonious board meetings in May, all of which dragged into the small hours of the morning.
The decision ended any possibility of co-operation with the Elora board on a joint school for the two towns. The Beatty site, only two blocks from the railway stations, offered easy access to travelling students, and was the most convenient Fergus site for those walking from Elora. Several Elora trustees viewed the decision as a sign of bad faith. Relations between the two boards remained cool for decades.
At the Fergus board’s May 9 meeting representatives of Coon & Co., aware that the board was talking to other architects, demanded $2,000 for work already completed if their contract was cancelled. The board voted to rescind the contract and to contact five other firms. Chairman Dick was unable to tackle the regular agenda items until after midnight.
After the cancellation of the Coon & Son contract, the board found that other architectural firms wanted nothing to do with them. Two wrote to say that they did not want to tread on the toes of a colleague. Only one firm, D.R. Franklin, offered to discuss the matter. At another late meeting on May 20, the board awarded the design work to Franklin, based on the firm’s lower fee.
Five nights later the board convened again. Coon & Son had received word of the Franklin decision less than an hour after it had been made. Their lawyers threatened a breach of contract suit. Board secretary and lawyer J.A. Wilson advised the trustees that the board’s case was weak. Before going home, the board rescinded the Franklin appointment, and Coon & Son were back at the drawing board.
On June 4 the board met at the McTavish site with the architects. They decided to place the school facing Tower Street, about 100 feet back from the street, to allow for a semi-circular driveway in front of the school.
At the next meeting on June 13, trustee J.B. Ketchen, who had been accused of conflict of interest over the Beatty site, decided to get to the bottom of the so-called free land. It had not been donated by the McTavish family, but by some third party who purchased it from the McTavishes. Eventually, trustee William Rutherford admitted he was the donor. He told the board that McTavish would only sell the whole seven-acre parcel, and that he had purchased it for $1,000. He was donating half to the board, on the condition that they buy the remainder for $500.
Ketchen was furious. The board needed only three acres. Why buy the whole parcel when it was not needed? He made a motion to rescind the purchase of the second half of the property. His motion lost 9-3.
Unanimity finally prevailed at the next important meeting of the board, on July 4, 1927. The trustees opened the tenders. All were above the original $75,000 estimate, the highest by almost $20,000. The contract went to G.H. Thomas & Son of Galt for $81,000. Their price for stone was slightly less than for brick. The Thomas firm had considerable experience with school construction. The Galt Collegiate was the largest example of their work. The decision to build in stone was well received by Fergus residents.
The price though, alarmed Fergus council. At a special meeting, councillors considered intervening to stop the project, already over budget before it commenced. But by now everyone was tired of the fighting, and they did not act. Excavation was under way by mid-July 1927 and the building completed the next year.
Many questions remain unanswered to this day. Why did Dr. Groves intervene so aggressively? Why did Bill Rutherford spend so much money to have the school situated where he wanted it? Why did the trustees opt to shun Elora and a joint school? Why did the all-powerful Beatty brothers fail so miserably in having their way? Over eight decades later, we can only speculate on these questions.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Sept. 17 and 24, 2004.